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Plain Language About Shiftwork

Roger R. Rosa1

Michael J. Colligan2


Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

1Division of Biomedical and Behavioral Science

2Education and Information Division

Cincinnati, Ohio

July 1997



Mention of company names or products does not constitute endorsementby the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-145



Plain Language About ShiftworkPublic Health Summary

What are the hazards?

Shiftworkers and night workers often are tired and sleepybecause of their work schedule. Being overly tired makes itdifficult to concentrate, which increases the possibility of errors

or accidents. This can be a risk both to the worker and to the public.The stress of shiftwork also can aggravate health conditions, such asheart disease or digestive disorders.

How do these hazards occur?Working at night makes it difficult to get enough sleep. Sleep afternight work usually is shorter and less refreshing or satisfying thansleep during the normal nighttime hours. Brain and body functionsslow down during the nighttime and early morning hours. The com-bination of sleep loss and working at the body’s low-point can causeexcessive fatigue and sleepiness. This makes it more difficult to per-form well, which increases the risk of accidents. Also, shiftwork canbe stressful because of frequent switching from a day to night sched-ule and because of separation from family and friends. These stressescan be harmful to health.



How can these hazards be avoided?Many workers cannot avoid night or rotating shiftwork. Therefore,this booklet suggests ways of coping with shiftwork. Organizationalor group approaches include redesigning the work schedule, redis-tributing the workload, improving the work environment, and institut-ing programs to improve worker awareness. Individual approachesinclude improved sleep strategies, exercise and diet programs, andrelaxation techniques.

How do I get more information?If you would like extra copies of this booklet, or if you have questions about the material in this booklet, contact the NationalInstitute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the numberlisted below.




Plain Language About Shiftwork

About this booklet....This document gives basic facts about shiftwork and talks about ways to make shiftwork life easier. It is organized into six sections. If you prefer, go directly to the section of interest to you. The sixsections are:

1. Background information .........................................................1

2. How to examine work schedules...........................................5

3. Health and safety effects of shiftwork .................................13

4. Improving shiftwork through the organization ...................19

5. Coping strategies for the individual ....................................27

6. Recommended reading .........................................................37




Demanding work schedules are a fact of life in modern, 24-hoursociety. Goods are produced and services are provided at all

hours of the day and night. Because of this, people are required towork at all hours. These kinds of work schedules can be quite astrain and can affect a worker’s safety or health. Mistakes from afatigued shiftworker also can affect the public’s safety or health.

To prepare this document, we borrowed ideas and information frommany people who have studied shiftwork or done shiftwork them-selves. Some of our sources are mentioned in the recommendedreading list at the end of this document. We encourage the reader to check this list to learn more about shiftwork.



Background Information

Defining ShiftworkThere are many work schedules that are called shiftwork. Shiftworkinvolves working outside the normal daylight hours. That is, outsidethe hours of around 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., the time period in which manypeople in our society work a 7- to 8-hour shift. Shiftworkers mightwork in the evening, in the middle of the night, overtime or extra-




long workdays. They also might work regular days at one time oranother. Many shiftworkers “rotate” around the clock, which involveschanging work times from day to evening, or day to night. This mighthappen at different times of the week or at different times of themonth. Police officers and firefighters, for example, often work rotat-ing shifts. Other workers might have a “permanent” shift and onlywork at night or in the evenings. Waiters and waitresses, for example,might work only the evening shift. Night watchmen, on the otherhand, might work only the overnight or “graveyard” shift.

Society and Employer Reasons for ShiftworkThere are several reasons for shiftwork. A major reason is that mod-ern technology has made it possible to do many activities at any timeof the day or night. This “24-hour society” of ours requires thatimportant services be provided at all times. Critical services includepublic safety, such as police and fire protection; military defense;health care; transportation; and public utilities, such as electricalpower, water and telephone. Other industries must operate 24 hoursper day because the production process is much longer than 8 hoursand must be performed continuously. Many chemical productsrequire such a process. Also, manufacturing industries often haveexpensive machinery that needs to be operated continuously in orderto be profitable.

Because several occupations and industries operate around the clock,other services have expanded their hours to accommodate eveningand nighttime workers. (They also have expanded access for all therest of us who simply enjoy the convenience.) Some obvious exam-ples are grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants that are open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The increase in theseexpanded-time services in the past decade or two has opened up thejob market for new shiftworkers. This is ironic. Because there are somany shiftworkers, society now needs more shiftworkers.

2 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Numbers of ShiftworkersEstimates of the number of shiftworkers varies with the definition ofshiftwork. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about five per-cent of American adults work in the evening. Permanent night work-ers and workers with irregular schedules make up another four per-cent. Still another four percent are rotating shiftworkers. All together,this amounts to about 15.5 million people.

Almost any occupation or industry has some people doing shiftwork.A quick check of lists provided by the Bureau of Labor Statisticsshows about 2 to 10 percent of almost any occupationworking evening, night, or rotating shifts. These kinds ofschedules happen quite often among police officers andfirefighters. More than half of them work evenings andnights, and about a quarter of them rotate shifts. Manytransportation and public utility workers — about one-fifthof them — also work shifts. Long-haul truckers often maketheir best time in the evening or at night.

Lately, many materials must be delivered “just in time,” orjust before they are used in manufacturing. For example,parts for making automobiles are delivered this way. This practice hasforced more truckers to take trips at all hours and at the last minuteto make their deliveries on time.

People Who Work ShiftsIf we look only at full-time jobs, men work more night and rotatingshifts, while women work more evening shifts and do more part-timework. However, full-time shiftworking women are not far behind innumbers. And more women are entering the workforce full time, sothese numbers are changing quickly. Younger people are more likelyto work shifts than older people. African-Americans do more shift-work than Caucasian-Americans. Single people work more shifts than

Background Information • 3


married people. If we look at married couples who each have payingjobs, about one-quarter to one-third of these couples have at leastone partner who is a shiftworker. If we look at mothers with childrenat home, single mothers work shifts more often than married mothers.

Employee Reasons to Do ShiftworkSome workers actually prefer non-day work, but most do not seekout shiftwork. Reasons for employees choosing shiftwork include better pay, more available time during the day for child care, moredaylight hours for recreation, and more time to attend school. Someworkers prefer the night shift because it is quieter and there are fewersupervisors. Usually, however, workers say they did not choose shift-work. They do it either because it is required of the job, or no otherjob is available.

4 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


How to Examine Work Schedules

S hiftwork experts often are asked what is the best or worst workschedule.There is no simple answer to this question because there

is no ideal schedule that fits every situation. Both good and bad pointscan be found in most work schedules. In this section, we suggest waysto examine work schedules to identify their advantages and disadvan-tages.

How to Examine Work Schedules • 5




6 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

Types of Work SchedulesThere are hundreds of different shiftwork schedules. However, it isdifficult to accurately count the many shiftwork schedules being used.No thorough records are kept by the federal government, trade orga-nizations, or labor unions. Different schedules might be used by thesame occupation, the same industry, or even the same workplace.

The most common shift schedule probably is five days on a singleshift followed by two days off. If this is a rotating shift schedule, theworker will change to a new shift after the days off. Depending onthe job, it is even possible to work 7, 10, or 14 days in a row. Off-shore oil rig workers, for example, might work two weeks out on therig followed by two weeks off at home.

Since so many different schedules exist, researchers have thought ofways to measure different features of the schedules. These featuresare used to study how work schedules might affect safety, health, orproductivity. The features are listed in Table 1 with explanationsbelow.

Work Schedule FeaturesWe already have mentioned the time of the shift and whether shiftsare permanent (fixed) or rotating. It also is important to consider:

• How long a shift might be.

• How many shifts are worked before a rest day.

• How many rest days are on weekends.

• Whether there is overtime.

• How much rest is taken between shifts.

• How much rest is taken during the shift.

• Whether the work schedule is regular and predictable.


As we will explain, all of these features can affect the amount ofstress and fatigue a person feels because of the work schedule. Ifpeople experience too much stress and fatigue, then they might notdo their jobs safely and efficiently. Or they might develop healthproblems. Here are some particulars about the different shift features.

Time of Shift: Twenty-four hour operations usually are divided intotwo or three shifts. Start- and end-times depend on the length of theshift. Day shift (also called morning or first shift) starts around5 to 8 a.m. and ends around 2 to 6 p.m. Evening shift (also calledafternoon or second shift) starts around 2 to 6 p.m. and endsaround 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Night shift (also called third,“graveyard,” or “mid” shift) starts around 10 p.m. to2 a.m. and ends around 5 to 8 a.m.

Why is the time of shift important? Because peoplewho work in the late night or early morning hoursoften feel sleepy and fatigued during their shift. Thishappens because their body rhythm (also called acircadian rhythm) tells them to be asleep at thosetimes. Night workers also must sleep during the day,when their circadian rhythm tells them to be awake.Because of this, day sleep is short and feels “light” orunsatisfying. Often, night workers don’t get enough sleep during the day to combat nighttime fatigue and sleepiness. Also, day workers sometimes must wake up very early to go to work. Thismight cause them to cut off their sleep, which makes them feel tiredduring the day.

Shift times also determine when a worker can see family and friends.Many social events take place in the evening, which means theymight be missed by evening or night workers. Parents who work theevening shift might not see their children during the week becausethey are at work when the kids return from school. If this happenstoo often, it can be stressful.

How to Examine Work Schedules • 7


Permanent versus Rotating Schedules: We might think that perma-nent night workers adapt or get used to their work times. Usually, thelonger somebody does something, the easier it becomes. With experi-ence, many night workers figure out tricks or personal methods tofight off some of the nighttime fatigue. However, research tells us thatmost permanent night workers never really get used to the schedule.That is, there are many nights when they still feel tired and sleepy.Fatigue occurs because most night workers go back to a day scheduleon their days off. This is not surprising because family and friends areactive during the day. Also, many errands and chores (like getting thecar fixed) must be done during the day. Because most night workersoften return to a day schedule, they never completely allow theirsleep and body rhythms to adapt to being awake at night. They alsosleep less during the day, so they don’t recover from fatigue. Thisfatigue can carry over from day to day. Over several days, fatigue canaccumulate to unsafe levels.

People working rotating schedules face a similar situation. Becausethe shift times are always changing, they can never completely adaptto a set work schedule. Rotating schedules are often used becausethey are considered fairer to all workers. Everybody in the workforcetakes their turn at both the popular and unpopular shifts. Rotatingshiftworkers are always trying to get used to changing work times.This is not easy, which is why rotating shiftworkers have more com-plaints than other workers about physical health and psychologicalstress. Research has shown that rotating shifts have special featuresthat might affect a person’s ability to get used to the schedule. Thesefeatures are explained below.

Speed and Direction of Rotation: Adapting to rotating shifts can beaffected by the speed of rotation and the direction of rotation. Speedof rotation means the number of consecutive day, evening, or nightshifts before a shift change occurs. Direction of rotation means theorder of shift change: A forward rotation is in the clockwise direction,

8 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


from day to evening to night shift. A backward rotation is in thecounterclockwise direction, from day to night to evening shift.

Different rotation speeds also affect a worker’s ability to get used tochange of shift times. We have already talked about the same situa-tion under permanent versus rotating shifts. Longer rotations (forexample, three to four weeks of working the same hours) are sup-posed to allow workers more time to get used to night shifts.However, workers usually return to a day schedule on their days off.A fast rotation (every two days, for example)allows no time to get used to night work. Someresearchers prefer the fast rotation, because theworker quickly gets through the tough shiftsand then has a couple of days off. Very fastrotations are used in Europe more than inAmerica.

Direction of rotation can affect the ability of cir-cadian (daily body) rhythms to adapt to thechange in work times. Sleep, for example, is acircadian rhythm because each person sleepsfor part of every day. Some researchers suggestthat a forward, or clockwise, rotation is betterfor helping a worker adjust to new sleep times. This suggestion wasmade because it is easier to go to bed later and wake up later thanearlier. Our body rhythms make us feel more awake and alert in theearly evening. This makes it harder to fall asleep earlier. Backwardrotations work against the body rhythm by forcing the worker to goto sleep earlier and earlier.

Although we don’t have hard and fast numbers, it seems that back-ward rotation schedules are used frequently in the United States. It isnot completely clear why. It is partly because of custom (We alwaysdid it this way) and partly because workers like the “long change.” Inthe long change, workers pick up an extra day off when going to

How to Examine Work Schedules • 9


evening shifts after night shifts. This happens because evening shiftstarts late in the day, which leaves most of that day free for non-workactivities.

Work-Rest Ratios (or How Much Work Before a Rest): The more aperson works, the less time he or she will have for rest. People whowork an 8-hour shift will have 16 hours left in a day to do everythingelse, and also to get some rest. People who work a 12-hour shift haveonly 12 hours to do everything else and to rest. In a situation likethis, the extra work hours mean more tiredness and less time for rest.This is a two-edged sword. For example, many times a worker’shome responsibilities, such as taking care of children, cannot changefrom day to day. So, if workers do overtime or a 12-hour shift, theystill must take care of home duties. Since these duties take the sameamount of time every day, workers may sacrifice rest and sleep aftera long workday. This example shows us how important the length ofshift can be in terms of stress and fatigue.

When looking at work versus rest, we also must consider how manybreaks are taken during the shift and the length of breaks. Dependingon the type of work and length of the day, several short breaks mightbe better than a few long breaks. Short breaks might be better partic-ularly for jobs requiring heavy physical labor.

How tired a worker is also depends partly on how many days in arow he or she works. Fatigue builds up over several workdays, aswell as over a single workday. This happens especially when a per-son gets less sleep between workdays than on rest days. As we men-tioned earlier, a worker might not get enough sleep between longworkdays because of home responsibilities. So, if a person worksseveral days in a row, for example, six or seven, a good deal of sleepmight be lost. Then the worker feels quite tired during the last one ortwo shifts.

10 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


How to Examine Work Schedules • 11

Table 1: Work Schedule FeaturesFeature Particulars Example

Time of Shift Day, evening or night

Shift Rotation

Permanent Fixed shift times (no rotation)

Rotating Changing shift timesSpeed Number of workdays Rapid: 2 days per shift

before shift change Slow: 21 days per shift

Direction Clockwise (forward) Clockwise: day to eveningor counterclockwise to night(backward) change Counter: day to night to


Work-Rest Ratios (or How Much Work Before a Rest)

Weekly Number of workdays 5 workdays/2 restdaysto number of restdays 7 workdays/3 restdays

Overtime workdays

Daily Work hours to rest hours 8 h work/16 h rest12 h work/12 h rest

Rest breaks within a day Lunch, coffee break

Overtime work hours

How Regular or Predictable?

Can affect any other Emergency or “on-call”part of the schedule Unplanned overtime

Demand-based schedulingor working off a “call board”


12 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

How Regular or Predictable? Most jobs have a very regular, setschedule. A worker usually knows the schedule ahead of time. Evenif the shift times change, a worker will know several days before-hand. This makes it easy to schedule other non-work activities, suchas making sure somebody is at home when the children get there.Other jobs are not so regular or predictable. For example, health careworkers might respond to emergencies that keep them on the jobmuch longer than expected. Or, they might be on call for such emer-gencies. At a factory, a breakdown or a last-minute call for a productmight keep workers at the plant working overtime. Railroad workerssometimes work off a “call board.” This means they can be assignedto a train at the last minute to move a “just-in-time” order of goods.

If workers cannot predict their schedules, it is difficult to get ade-quate rest. Maybe they just get to sleep when they are called back towork, or maybe they have just worked a long shift when an emer-gency happens. So, they stay at work a few more hours. Maybe theyare on call and never get deep, satisfying sleep because they arealways listening for the phone. Some people call this “sleeping withone eye open.”


Health and Safety Effects of Shiftwork

W e have mentioned several positive points about shiftwork.Because of shiftworkers, our society is kept moving 24 hours

a day. To the worker, shiftwork might mean extra pay or more freehours during the daytime. We also mentioned that shiftwork sched-ules are demanding and likely to produce stress and fatigue. Here we

Health and Safety Effects of Shiftwork • 13




summarize ways that shiftwork might affect safety, health, or ability todo the job. Some of these things happen very soon after starting shift-work. We talk about these under Immediate Effects. Health changestake a longer time to appear. We talk about health under Long-TermHealth Effects.

Immediate EffectsSleep

Soon after starting shiftwork, people notice changes in their sleep.Night workers usually get the least amount of sleep. Evening shift-workers get the most sleep, and day shiftworkers get a mediumamount of sleep. Night workers are forced to sleep during the day,when their circadian rhythm makes them feel more awake. Day sleepis usually shorter than night sleep—sometimes two or three hoursshorter. Day sleep also is lighter than night sleep. Day sleepers oftensay they don’t sleep as deeply as they do at night. Because their sleepis lighter, they are easily awakened by sounds. This makes sleepingdifficult. Since there is more activity during the day, there are moresounds to wake up the sleeping shiftworker. Both permanent nightworkers and rotating shiftworkers sleep worse when working nights.However, rotating shiftworkers sleep the least of all.

Sleep loss makes it much easier to fall asleep at inappropriate times.This affects a worker’s ability to perform safely and efficiently.Sleepiness can affect performance both on and off the job. Driving toand from work is a major concern. Sleepiness affects our ability toconcentrate or pay attention, and driving requires us to pay attentionat all times. So, if a person is sleepy, it is easier to have an accident.Several jobs, such as operating dangerous machinery, also require usto pay attention at all times. So sleepiness can be risky in many differ-ent occupations. This risk is not simply a matter of falling completelyasleep. After sleep loss, it is possible to have very brief periods ofsleep that last only a few seconds. Most people may not even realize

14 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


these short sleeps are happening. During those few seconds of sleep,they are not paying attention at all. If something dangerous happensat those times, the worker or somebody else could get seriously hurt.

Circadian Rhythm, Performance, and SafetyThe circadian rhythm is a major body rhythm with regular ups anddowns in the 24-hour day. Many systems in the body are very activeat certain times of day, and not active at all at other times of day.Usually the most activity happens in late afternoon or early evening.For example, the body’s ability to produce energy from food (metab-olism) is highest in the afternoon to evening. The least activity usuallyhappens in the middle of the night when most people are asleep.This is one reason people feel most active and alert around4 to 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and sleepiest at 4 to 6 o’clock in themorning.

There also are personal differences in circadian rhythms. Some peo-ple are morning types or “larks.” Morning people feel most active andalert early in the day. They usually go to bed early in the evening.Other people are evening types or “owls.” Evening people feel mostactive in late afternoon or evening, and like to stay up late into thenight. Fishermen who are out on the water before dawn usually aremorning types. Musicians who perform in the evening usually areevening types. Most people, however, are somewhere in-between thestrict morning and evening types.

The internal circadian rhythm affects how alert people feel. Thisaffects their ability to perform. People perform best when alertnessand internal body activity is high, and worst when alertness andactivity are low. In the normal day-work, night-sleep situation, peoplework when the circadian rhythm is high and sleep when it is low. Onaverage, this schedule is best for performance, which means it also isbest for safety. When workers perform poorly, they are more likely tomake errors that could lead to accidents or injuries.

Health and Safety Effects of Shiftwork • 15


16 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

When working the night shift, a person is at work when his or hercircadian rhythm is low and asleep when it is high. Such a schedulemeans that a person is trying to stay alert when the circadian rhythmis low. On average, this is not the best time of day for performance.This low-point affects physical activity and the ability to concentrate.If a worker also has lost sleep, fatigue could combine with the circa-dian low-point to double the effect on one’s ability to perform. Poorperformance could affect both productivity and safety. Studies oferrors and accidents at different times of day show an increased riskat night when the circadian rhythm is low and sleep has been lost.

Interference with Social and Family LifeMost social and family events happen during the evening or onweekends. Because shiftworkers are on the job in the evening or onweekends, or because they sleep during the day, they often miss outon social or family activities. When shiftworkers are asked aboutproblems with their work schedule, they usually say that the numberone problem is missing family and friends. Most shiftworkers agreethat sleep also is a problem, but sometimes they would rather lose alittle sleep just to see other people, especially their spouse or children.

The amount of time shiftworkers spend with family and friendsdepends on their schedule. It also depends on their social and leisureactivities and how flexible these activities are. Shiftwork interferes little with activities that are not on a strict time schedule. Gardening,woodworking, or fixing cars are these kinds of activities. Shiftworkdoes interfere with activities that are strictly scheduled, such as clubsor team sports. Shiftworkers often miss these activities because ofwork. Child care or visits to the children’s school also can be a prob-lem because of the work schedule.

A shiftwork schedule affects not only the worker but also the rest ofthe family. For example, children at play must be quiet during theday because the shiftworker is asleep.


Long-Term Health EffectsIn the long run, it is possible for a demanding work schedule toaffect a person’s health. However, studying health problems in work-ers is difficult. If possible, workers will change jobs if they think thework is making them ill. A shiftworker might change to a day job forthat reason. This is called the “healthy worker” or the “survivor”effect. Workers who stay on the job are those who can “take it.”Because sick workers leave the job, it is much harder to show a rela-tionship between job factors and poor health. Therefore, researchershave only fairly healthy shiftworkers to study.

With that in mind, it is not clear whether or not one’swork schedule is the actual cause of health prob-lems. But, workers who quit doing shiftwork oftenpoint to health problems as a major reason for quit-ting. Plus, a stressful schedule can combine withother factors to hurt a person’s health. If a personhas other major stresses in life, such as a bad mar-riage or a loved one with a chronic illness, ademanding work schedule certainly won’t help thesituation. If a worker has poor health habits, such asusing too much alcohol or tobacco, it will be moredifficult to resist the stress of the work schedule. Ademanding schedule also might aggravate an existinghealth problem.

Digestive Problems: Some research has suggested that shiftworkershave more upset stomachs, constipation, and stomach ulcers than dayworkers. Other research has not backed up this suggestion. But, thereis always the problem of having only healthy workers to study.Digestive problems could be more common in shiftworkers becausedigestion follows a circadian rhythm. Usually people eat at regulartimes during the day. They also eliminate waste at regular times dur-ing the day. Shiftwork can interfere with regular eating and digestive

Health and Safety Effects of Shiftwork • 17


patterns by changing work and sleep times frequently. So, it is notsurprising that this could lead to nausea and other stomach problems.However, digestive problems also could be caused by lack of nutri-tious food. For example, sometimes on night shift only junk foodfrom vending machines is available.

Heart Disease: Heart problems also have been noted more oftenamong shiftworkers than day workers. For example, Swedishresearchers studied paper mill workers in a small town for severalyears. This study is especially meaningful, because the paper mill wasthe only employer in town. This made it difficult for the employees tostop working shifts. Most of them had done shiftwork for most oftheir lives. Researchers found that the longer people worked shifts,the more likely they were to develop heart disease. However, theway in which the work schedule affects the heart is not at all clear.Work schedule stress might cause heart disease, but it is more likely acombination of stress, diet, smoking and drinking habits, other lifestresses, and family history of heart disease.

It is difficult to say exactly how the work schedule fits in with all theother factors producing heart disease. Earlier we talked about severaldifferent work schedule features that could cause stress and fatigue.Right now we can only guess about which combination of those fea-tures has the most impact on a person’s health. Constantly shiftingfrom a day to a night schedule may be one of the stressful factors.But long work hours, high workloads, and irregular schedules alsocan play a role.

18 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Improving Shiftwork Through the Organization

Work Schedule DesignThere are few laws or regulations governing work hours or workscheduling in the United States. The federal government has placed a10-hour limit on the length of time a long-haul trucker can drive eachday. There also are federal regulations governing flight time and resttime for commercial airline pilots. Various state laws establish rulesfor overtime pay and child labor. Other than these regulations, thelaw does little to guide design of a work schedule to reduce stress or

Improving Shiftwork through the Organization • 19




fatigue. Nevertheless, research has suggested that work schedules canbe improved. Older, poorly designed work schedules might even bedangerous because new technologies can change both the physicaland mental demands placed on a worker. A well-designed workschedule can improve health and safety, worker satisfaction, and pro-ductivity. Therefore, a good work schedule is an advantage for boththe organization and the worker.

Changing a schedule is not easily done and must be handled carefully.Designing a work schedule has a large and immediate impact on all

workers. All people on the job must abide by the workhours, or they will lose their jobs. Also, working hours affecthow people arrange the rest of their lives. So any time awork schedule is changed, many aspects of job life andhome life must be considered. It is recommended that anywork schedule change should first be temporary and evaluat-ed carefully. The benefits of the change must outweigh thepossible negative aspects. If it really is a change for the bet-ter, then it can be established on a permanent basis. Because

such a change is complex, it is a good idea to consult ergonomics, orhuman factors, specialists for help in work schedule design and evaluation.

Shown below are some possibilities that the organization could con-sider to improve a shiftwork schedule. Given the limited amount ofknowledge and research at this time, these should be considered assuggestions and not as strict guidelines or regulations. Remember, allaspects of job and home life must be considered when changing awork schedule. Some suggestions may be useful in a particular worksituation, and some may not.

Consider alternatives to permanent (fixed or non-rotating)night shift: Most workers never really get used to night shift becausethey go back to a daytime schedule on their days off. Also, someworkers on fixed night shifts lose contact with management and the

20 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Improving Shiftwork Schedules• Avoid permanent (fixed or non-rotating) night shift.

• Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum.

• Avoid quick shift changes.

• Plan some free weekends.

• Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day“mini-vacations.”

• Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum.

• Consider different lengths for shifts.

• Examine start-end times.

• Keep the schedule regular and predictable.

• Examine rest breaks.

rest of the workers in the organization. They may end up feeling tooisolated or somehow “different” from the rest of the workers. Thiscould make communication difficult. If possible, consider a rotatingnight shift schedule, but take measures to ease the burdens oftenexperienced in the typical weekly shift rotation. Some suggestions formaking rotation less taxing are given below. We realize, however,that permanent night shift sometimes is the only choice, such as in anighttime security guard job.

Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum: Some researcherssuggest that only 2 to 4 nights in a row should be worked before acouple of days off. This keeps circadian rhythms from being overlydisturbed and limits sleep loss.

Avoid quick shift changes: A break of only seven to ten hoursshould be avoided before rotating to a new shift, such as going from

Improving Shiftwork through the Organization • 21


22 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

morning to night shift on the same day of the week. With so quick achange, it is difficult to get much rest before going back to work. Onreturn to work after a quick change, most people are very tired andsleepy. At the end of a night shift, at least 24 hours are recommendedbefore rotating to another shift. Some researchers even suggest that48 hours should be the minimum between shifts.

Plan some free weekends: If a seven-days-per-week schedule isrequired, allow one or two full weekends off each month. Loss ofcontact with friends and family is a major problem for shiftworkers.Weekends are the best time to meet family and friends who are on aday schedule.

Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day“mini-vacations”: Working several days in a row followed by severaldays off can be very fatiguing. For example, some schedules require10 to 14 days of work followed by five to seven days off. Frequent“mini-vacations” are well liked by some workers, especially youngerones. However, older workers find it difficult to recover during themini-vacations before they return to another long spell of work. Poorrecovery from fatigue can produce accidents and damage health. Along work spell should be used only when there is no other choice,such as when long travel distances are required to do the work(e.g., mining or oil exploration).

Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum: Extra workhours add to fatigue. They also allow less rest time per day. If 12-hour shifts are used, two or three 12-hour shifts in a row should bethe maximum. Two in a row is probably best for night shift. One ortwo days off should follow these night shifts.

Consider different lengths for shifts: Try adjusting shift lengthto the workload. Heavy physical or mental work or monotonous bor-ing work is especially difficult at night. Maybe night shifts could beshorter. If possible, move heavy work to shorter shifts and lighterwork to longer shifts.


Examine start-end times: Flexible start-end times, or “flextime,” canbe useful for those with child care needs or a long commute time.Consider moving shift start-end times away from rush hour. Morningshifts should not start too early (5 to 6 a.m.) because night sleepoften is cut short before an early shift.

Keep the schedule regular and predictable: Workers should knowtheir schedule well ahead of time, so they can plan their rest, childcare, and contact with family and friends. Studies of train accidentsshowed that very irregular schedules contributed to the accidents byproducing sleep loss and fatigue.

Examine rest breaks: Sometimes the standard lunch and coffeebreak are not enough to recover from fatigue. For example, carddealers in gambling casinos get a 10 to 15 minute break every hourbecause their jobs require so much concentration. If their concentra-tion is low, it is easier for a player to cheat at cards, and the casinowill lose money. In jobs requiring repetitive physical work, brief restbreaks each hour seem to be best for recovery from muscle fatigue.

Workload DistributionIn some jobs, it might be possible to schedule heavy or demandingwork at times when workers are most alert or at peak performance.We mentioned that the afternoon and early evening hours are timesof peak performance. If possible, avoid doing the heaviest or mostdangerous work in the middle of the night or early morning hours.This is the time when circadian rhythms are low, and sleepiness ishigh. Especially avoid heavy or dangerous work if the worker is atthe end of a 12-hour shift in the early morning hours. Extra fatiguefrom long work hours can combine with early morning sleepiness toincrease accident risk.

Improving Shiftwork through the Organization • 23


Work EnvironmentPoor working conditions add to the strain of shiftwork. Adequatelighting, clean air, proper heat and air conditioning, and reducednoise will avoid adding to the shiftworker’s burden. Shiftworkers alsomay be particularly sensitive to toxic substances because circadianrhythm changes make the body more sensitive to toxic exposure atcertain times of day. Workers also should have access to hot andnutritious meals during evening and night shifts. If a cafeteria is notavailable, a microwave will allow workers to warm meals broughtfrom home or bought from vending machines.

Electronic MonitoringModern computer technology makes it possible to check a worker’sperformance every minute of the day. Some people have suggestedthat a monitoring or test system could be used to check a worker fordangerous levels of fatigue. There are performance tests on the mar-ket that claim to test fatigue or determine whether the worker is usingdrugs. However, many of them have not been tested scientifically, sowe cannot recommend them at this time.

Some computer systems actually measure worker output or produc-tivity. For example, a computer might measure the number of times aworker taps a keyboard or how many phone calls are completed inan hour. If a worker slows down too much, it could be a sign offatigue. It may be possible to use this system as a fatigue test. But thisis tricky business. The feeling of being watched constantly can bevery stressful to workers. (Big brother is watching you.) It can makeworkers feel they have no control over their jobs. We suggest thatcomputer monitoring be used only when the workers themselveschoose it for safety purposes.

24 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Access to Health Care and CounsellingOften, going to one’s health clinic or to personal or marriage coun-selling is not possible in the evening or at night. Expanded access tothese services will help improve shiftworkers’ physical and mentalhealth and boost morale. If services are not available within the orga-nization, a directory of community health and counselling facilitieswith expanded hours could be provided.

Training/Awareness ProgramsMeetings to make all workers aware of the ups and downs of shift-work can be useful, especially for new shiftworkers. It is important toinvite family members to these meetings, so they can know what toexpect from the shiftworker. Use the meetings to share informationon all issues mentioned in this document and in the recommendedreading. Talking about personal experiences also is very valuable inthese types of meetings. If people are having trouble adapting toshiftwork, it is important they know they are not alone. They mightlearn some tricks from other workers that could make their job lifeeasier. The family will learn just how tough the work schedule canbe. It will help to know when to go easy on the worker because ofthe schedule.

Social ProgramsA little extra effort at organizing get-togethers, hobby clubs, or sportsand game activities can lessen the feeling of isolation. There is nospecial reason for these activities to take place only in the day orevening. For example, nighttime or early morning bowling leaguesare available in some places.

Improving Shiftwork through the Organization • 25


Coping Strategies for the Individual • 27

Coping Strategies for the Individual

Getting Enough Good SleepTake responsibility for getting enough sleep to feel rested andrestored. For some people this happens without doing anything




special. However, most shiftworkers need to become more aware ofwhat to do to get satisfying sleep and when to do it.

When to Sleep after Night Shift: This depends on the individual.Try different times and see what works best for you. As you experi-ment with different sleep times, keep a written record of when yougo to sleep, when you wake up, and how rested you feel. This willhelp you identify which sleep schedule works best for you.

Some workers like to sleep in one longer period, but many workersneed two shorter sleep periods to get enough sleep after the nightshift. It is a good idea to go to bed as early as possible after the nightshift in order to maximize sleep. A second sleep also could be takenin the afternoon to get ready for night shift. Try taking advantage ofthe natural tendency to be sleepy in mid-afternoon. You might getyour most satisfying sleep at that time.

Does Rest Equal Sleep? Just resting without sleep is not enough.The brain has to have sleep, or you will be sleepy later in the day or during night shift. However, rest without sleep still is valuable forbody and muscle recovery. Schedule at least seven hours in bed,even if you don’t sleep the whole time.

What is the Minimum Amount of Sleep? The vast majority ofworkers need at least six hours of sleep but most need more thanthis. Most people do not feel refreshed and at their best with just sixhours. Staying with your own preferred amount of sleep is best in thelong run. You might find that you need less as you become moreexperienced with shiftwork.

Switching Back to Days: When switching back to days after thenight shift, it is best to get most of your sleep the following night.Sleep just a couple of hours shortly after night shift to shake offsleepiness. Then stay awake all day and go to sleep at your regularbedtime at night.

28 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Coping Strategies for the Individual • 29

Napping: Shiftworkers frequently nap, especially when workingnight shift. Added to your regular sleep, a short afternoon or eveningnap will help fight sleepiness during the night. However, napping isnot long enough to replace regular sleep. If you nap, allow enoughtime for drowsiness to wear off before starting work. If you have timeto nap at work during your break, don’t make the nap too short. A nap of 15 minutes or less might actually make you more sleepy.Twenty to 30 minutes should be the minimum for a nap during awork break. Again, allow enough time for drowsiness to wear offbefore doing hazardous work. And don’t use work-break naps toreplace your sleep at home. Naps work best when they are extrasleep time. They don’t work as well when you are trying to make up for lost sleep.

Protect SleepBlock Out Noise: Switch off the phone and disconnect the doorbell.Use ear plugs. Ask the family to use headphones for the stereo or TV.Set strict times for noisy activity, such as vacuuming, clothes washing,or children playing. Don’t allow these activities during your sleeptimes. Locate your bedroom in the quietest place. If possible, getaway from outside noise and also away from the kitchen or bath-room. Soundproof the bedroom with insulation and heavy curtains.Put signs out to say you are sleeping. Tell friends and neighborswhen not to call.

Keep a Regular Sleep Routine: Make the bedroom as dark as possi-ble. Always sleep in the bedroom. Follow your regular bedtime rou-tine every time you go to sleep. For example, wash up and brushyour teeth so you feel comfortable. This can serve as a signal to yourbody that it is time to sleep. Don’t use the bed for anything exceptwhat it is intended for. For example, don’t read, eat, watch TV, writebills, or argue with your spouse in bed. Make sure you have a com-fortable bed that won’t disturb your sleep.


30 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

Avoid Heavy Foods and Alcohol Before Sleep: Heavy, greasyfoods are anti-sleep because of stomach upsets. If you must eat, alight snack won’t disturb your sleep. Alcohol might make you feelsleepy, but it will wake you up too quickly after falling asleep. Don’tdrink alcohol in the hour or two before sleep.

ExerciseIn general, keeping physically fit helps resiststress and illness. Regular exercise also keeps aperson from becoming tired too quickly. A bigquestion for the shiftworker is when to exercise.The timing of exercise is important, so that itdoes not make a person too tired to work.Exercise also should not interfere with sleep. If aworker does physical labor, too much exercisebefore work might make work too tiring. Twentyminutes of aerobic exercise before work (forexample, a brisk walk, bike ride, jog, or swim) isenough to help any worker wake up and getgoing and also keep the heart in shape. Try toavoid exercise in the three hours before sleep.Exercise tends to activate the body or wake it up.This might make it difficult to fall asleep.

The timing of exercise also might help a personrotate from one shift to another. Since brisk exercising activates thebody to produce energy, it also might help the body rhythm shift tothe new work time. Try exercise before going on shift. Early morningexercise is good for day shift, afternoon exercise is good for eveningshift, and early evening exercise is good for night shift. Don’t overdoit or you will be too exhausted to work.


Coping Strategies for the Individual • 31

Relaxation TechniquesBeing able to wind down and take it easy is just as important asbeing able to wake up and get going. Give yourself time to relax andget rid of work-time stresses. This will make home life and sleep easi-er. Find out what is best for you personally to help you relax best. Itcould be just sitting down and closing your eyes for a while. Or itcould be meditating, praying, reading, taking a bath, or watching TV.

The following simple exercise may help you start your quiet relax-ation time. Try lying down on the carpet or bed, or sitting in an easychair. One by one, slowly tense each muscle group in your body,then slowly let them relax. Do this for your arms, legs, stomach,neck, and face muscles. Breath deeply during this exercise and goslowly. Try to feel all the muscle tension draining away from yourbody. This is a simple way to let go of all the stresses of the day andto slow down.

DietTV and the newspapers have highlighted diets recommending certainfoods to help people wake up and other foods to help them relax.Right now we cannot recommend either diet for the shiftworker.There have not been enough scientific tests to decide whether eitherdiet really helps a person wake up or relax. In some cases the twodiets recommend the same kinds of foods to do opposite things: onediet recommends eating protein to wake up, while the other dietrecommends eating protein to relax or become sleepy. This conflictmakes it even more difficult to decide whether either diet reallyworks. There simply are not enough studies of people using thesediets to be able to recommend them.

We can recommend sticking to a diet that, along with exercise, helpsa person stay physically fit. This means avoiding fatty and sugaryfoods, which make a person gain too much weight. Heavy or fatty


32 • Plain Language About Shiftwork

meals should be avoided especially in the middle of the nightbecause they are the most difficult to digest at that time. Eating lightermeals in the middle of the night helps reduce stomach upsets.

Bright LightRecent research tells us that bright light can affect our circadianrhythm. As we mentioned already, the circadian rhythm normallymakes us feel most active and alert in the late afternoon, and mosttired and sleepy in the middle of the night. Lately, we have learnedthat the high-point and the low-point of the circadian rhythm can bechanged by exposure to brightlight. By bright light we meanas much sunlight as on a brightsummer day. Bright light affectsmelatonin, which is a chemicalnaturally produced by thebrain. More melatonin makesus feel sleepier. Melatonin usually is produced during the early part of nighttime sleep. Brightlight in the evening will reduce melatonin, or make it appear later inthe night.

In laboratory research, people exposed to a few hours of bright lightin the morning felt alert earlier in the day. They also felt sleepier ear-lier in the night. People exposed to bright light late in the afternoonfelt most alert in late evening. Their low-point in alertness during thenight also was delayed.

Some researchers have suggested that exposure to bright light couldcontrol the alertness of shiftworkers. The well-timed exposure of aworker to bright light could quickly increase alertness at night. Afterexposure to more bright light, they then could quickly switch back tobeing alert during the day. Right now, we see this as a promising idea


that needs more work to be practical. Unlike use of drugs, it appearsthat there are no bad side effects from controlling bright light expo-sure. Still, workers have to be careful about using bright light, so thatthey will be alert at the right time. For bright light to work, a workeralso must stay in low light or in darkness during some times of day.In other words, if you get too much bright light at the wrong time,this might change the circadian rhythm in the wrong direction. If thishappens, you won’t be alert at the times you really need to be.

To sum up, we think it is possible to use bright light to change peakalertness to different times of the day. But right now, it takes anexpert to work out the right light-dark schedule to fit a particularwork schedule. If workers are exposed to bright light and low light atthe wrong times, they might end up moving their circadian rhythm inthe wrong direction. Using this strategy requires a lot of careful effortfrom the worker. This might make it too impractical for some shift-workers.

Caffeine, Alcohol, and Other DrugsJust like many people in our society, some shiftworkers drink caffeinated beverages as a pick-me-up before or during work. Theyalso might drink alcoholic beverages to relax or to be social. Othertypes of drugs, such as amphetamines and sleeping pills, also havebeen used to help people wake up or relax and go to sleep. Here wediscuss these substances and whether we can recommend them atthis time.

Caffeine: Caffeine is a mild stimulant that helps a person feel morealert and perhaps perform better. Caffeine is the most widely useddrug in the world. It is a natural ingredient in coffee and tea (iced teatoo!), and it is added to many soft drinks (for example, most colas,some root beers, Dr. Pepper, and Mountain Dew). Caffeinated bever-ages are a common part of our everyday diet and are easily available.

Coping Strategies for the Individual • 33


Because of this, caffeine is used more than any other drug to main-tain alertness and performance, or to help fight off sleepiness.Research backs up our everyday experience. There are many studiesthat show caffeine does help maintain alertness and performance.Research also tells us that caffeine is a fairly safe drug if used in smalldoses. By a small dose, we mean one to three cups of coffee or tea,or one to three soft drinks per day.

In small doses, caffeine is the only drug we can recommend as an aidfor the shiftworker. If you drink caffeinated beverages, do so beforethe shift or early in the shift. Try to avoid caffeine late in the shift,especially late in the night shift. Too much caffeine, or caffeine late inthe shift, makes it difficult to fall asleep after the shift. If you do getto sleep, caffeine makes sleep lighter and less satisfying. So don’tdrink too much and don’t drink late in the shift.

If you now are drinking a lot of caffeine (say five to six cups of cof-fee every day), we recommend that you cut down. Cutting down maymake relaxation easier and might improve sleep. Reduce caffeine usegradually over several days. Cut down only by one-half cup or onecup every couple of days. Cutting down too fast could produceheadaches, nervousness, and bad moods or irritable feelings.

Amphetamines, Diet Pills, “Uppers”: These types of drugs are verystrong stimulants that increase alertness and can eliminate sleep alltogether. Unfortunately, they are too strong and cannot be recom-mended. Most of these drugs are either illegal or can be obtainedonly by prescription. It is too easy to become addicted to these drugs.A worker might end up using them every day just to get going. Also,over the long run a person has to take more and more of these drugsjust to make them continue to work. This increases the possibility ofbecoming addicted. Frequent use produces extreme nervousness andmood changes, and performance actually becomes worse.

34 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Alcohol: One or two alcoholic drinks per day, taken with food, isOK for relaxation and to be social. By one drink, we mean eight totwelve ounces of beer, four to six ounces of wine, or one ounce ofhard liquor. However, we recommend avoiding alcohol during worktime, even during meal breaks. Also, we do not recommend usingalcohol to help sleep. Alcohol can make a person sleepy, so fallingasleep is easy. But, alcohol actually disturbs sleep. After drinkingalcohol, a person wakes up more frequently and sleeps more lightly.Alcohol can also reduce sleep so a person doesn’t sleep as long asthey want or need to. Avoid alcohol for one to two hours beforesleep, especially if you have to go to work after sleeping.

Sleeping Pills: These drugs can be divided into prescription andnonprescription (over-the-counter) types. Nonprescription sleepingpills usually contain the same drug used in allergy and sinus medi-cines. Nonprescription drugs sometimes make a person drowsy andhelp them fall asleep. However, most are fairly long acting, whichmeans that the user can still feel drowsy after waking up. If usedoften (e.g, more than once or twice per week), nonprescription pillsusually stop working and fail to make a person drowsy.

Prescription sleeping pills work pretty well to help a person fallasleep and stay asleep, even during the daytime. However, we cannotrecommend regular use (e.g., more than once or twice per week)because there is no research on shiftworkers and long-term use ofsleeping pills. It probably is not a good idea for shiftworkers to usesleeping pills every time they want to sleep during the day. For somepeople, it is too easy to become dependent on sleeping pills. Theymight end up using them every time they have to sleep. When thishappens, they become nervous or irritable if they run out of pills.Also, some long-acting sleeping pills produce too much drowsinessafter waking from sleep. This is less of a problem with the newer,short-acting sleeping pills. However, before considering prescriptiondrugs, we recommend trying the other techniques for improving

Coping Strategies for the Individual • 35


sleep. If all else fails and there still are problems with sleep, theworker should discuss taking prescription sleeping pills with his orher doctor.

Melatonin: As we mentioned already, melatonin is producednaturally by the brain at certain times of the day. The timing of thebrain’s melatonin production can be controlled by bright light.Melatonin also can be taken as a drug. Taken this way, melatoninmakes a person feel sleepy. So it might help improve daytime sleepfor the shiftworker.

Melatonin often is sold in health food stores and can be boughtwithout a prescription. However, we cannot recommend melatoninfor regular use by the shiftworker until more research is conducted.We need to find out how much melatonin should be taken. We needto learn the best time to take melatonin for a particular work shift. We also need to know if taking too much can damage your health. If taken too often, melatonin could create unknown problems. Also,the different brands of melatonin sold in stores might have differentstrengths or potency. So, we don’t know whether taking one amountof one brand works as well as taking the same amount of anotherbrand. Right now, we will have to take a wait-and-see attitude aboutmelatonin until more research is done.

36 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Recommended Reading • 37

Recommended ReadingAuthors: Corlett, E.N., Quiennec, Y., and Paoli, P.Title: Adapting Shiftwork ArrangementsPublisher: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and

Working Conditions, Dublin, IrelandYear Published: 1988

Authors: Folkard, S. and Monk, T.H. (editors)Title: Hours of Work: Temporal Factors in Work-SchedulingPublisher: John Wiley and Sons, New YorkYear Published: 1985

Author: Lamberg, L.Title: Bodyrhythms: Chronobiology and Peak PerformancePublisher: William Morrow and Company, New YorkYear Published: 1994

Author: Monk, T.H.Title: How to Make Shift Work Safe and ProductivePublisher: American Society of Safety Engineers, Des Plaines, IllinoisYear Published: 1988

Authors: Monk, T.H. and Folkard, S.Title: Making Shiftwork TolerablePublisher: Taylor and Francis, LondonYear Published: 1992




Author: Scott, A.J. (editor)Title: Shiftwork: Occupational Medicine State of the Art

Reviews. Volume 5, Number 2.Publisher: Hanley and Belfus, Inc., PhiladelphiaYear Published 1991

Author: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology AssessmentTitle: Biological Rhythms: Implications for the Worker

(OTA-BA-463)Publisher: U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.Year Published: 1991

Author: Wedderburn, A.Title Guidelines for ShiftworkersPublisher: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and

Working Conditions, Dublin, IrelandYear Published: 1991

38 • Plain Language About Shiftwork


Background Information • 39


Delivering on the NationÕs promise:Safety and health at work for all people

Through research and prevention

DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-145